Movie Review – A Monster Calls

Internal struggles and painful honesty make J.A. Bayona’s fairytale much, much more than your average boy-and-his-monster story. Bring tissues.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Things are not going well for twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall). He’s frequently bullied at school and is having to face the prospect of moving in with his overbearing, grouchy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), as his own mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from terminal cancer. To top things off, he experiences nightmares every night, in which the tree from a nearby graveyard becomes a towering monster (a mo-capped Liam Neeson) headed his way. The monster, however, reveals its intentions are to tell Conor stories, which he must interpret to help him come to terms with his mother’s illness.

It’s difficult to pinpoint who exactly J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) has made A Monster Calls for. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay, it’s coming-of-age outline would suggest that it is geared toward a younger audience, but its dark themes of grief, guilt, anger and coping with impending death are perhaps a bit too heavy and mature for kids. However, it’s fantastical and fairytale stylings, as well as its point of view of an adolescent boy could limit its appeal to adults. And yet Bayona’s film, which could be labelled the work of a visionary, has elements that will resonate with viewers of all ages.

Like his first two films, this is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is devastating – it’s without a doubt Bayona’s most visually accomplished film to date. He blends three visual mediums together to envision his fable, and the results are enormously effective and rewarding. There’s the live action, captured in exquisitely soft golds and greys by director of photography Oscar Faura, warming and cooling to fit the many moods the film goes through. There’s extraordinary CGI work from Félix Bergés and Pau Costa, whose monster is an incredibly detailed and jaw-dropping spectacle to behold, a far more ingenuitive and convincing tree-being than Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot. And there’s some truly stunning traditional animation that brings the monster’s stories to life; inspired by the illustrations of Jim Kay (who crafted the drawings we see Conor and his mother penning in the film), these sequences are like water paintings come to life, and are a hypnotic and grandiose feat.

Combined together, they make a unique and magnificent experience, but unlike most effects-driven monster movies, they work in harmony and exist to serve the confronting nature of the film’s narrative; despite their grandeur, they never once consume or overtake the characters or their ordeals.

Young Lewis MacDougall, in only his second film role following Pan, is a real revelation here; not only is he given the responsibility of carrying an entire film, he’s tasked with displaying the kind of perturbation on screen – constant grief, anger, fear and despair – that most films wouldn’t dare burden a child actor with. He’s robust and more than game, and worthy of the twelve award nominations he’s picked up for his breakthrough performance.

At times, the messages of A Monster Calls can feel heavy-handed, even a little forced. The monster’s stories, which often deal with good people capable of bad things, and bad people capable of good things, seem to push the idea that there are no good or bad people, only people. How these fit into the scheme of the story is a little ambiguous, even morally questionable; ultimately it’s down to the viewer to decide. But these are minor squabbles; forget Kong: Skull Island, this is without a doubt the monster movie of the year. One can only hope Bayona will breathe the same magic and life into his next project – a shift to the realm of the Hollywood franchise for the Jurassic World sequel.

A Monster Calls is available in Australian cinemas from July 27

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films

Movie Review – Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott reforges his covenant with the Alien franchise, but abandons the spark that once lit it up.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Alien: Covenant follows on from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and will no doubt lead into his classic Alien (1979), but it feels like a movie that has exhausted itself and run out of ideas. After thirty-eight years and seven films, how many new ways can there be to hide the dreaded monster in the dark and make it go “Boo!”?

The Alien movies ran their course by the time Aliens (1986) was done. Then Prometheus came about in 2012 carrying the Alien DNA and a bag full of new and exciting possibilities. Now Covenant arrives as the inevitable sequel and leaves all the promise of Prometheus behind. For those who found Prometheus to be a step too detached from the franchise, I suspect Covenant will be a comfort. But for those, like me, who enjoyed the new ground Prometheus was exploring, this movie will seem like a toothless clone of a once great empire.

Alien was a fantastic film because it was patient and understood the mechanics of horror, which used space, lighting and pacing to draw us in to a perpetual state of anticipation. It employed the Jaws formula – by keeping the monster that could potentially eat the entire cast hidden for most of the film, its eventual revelation was shocking. Covenant dashes headfirst into the action, regularly foregoing any kind of build-up. We see the aliens up close and very often, many times in wide shots that reveal their entire humanoid physique. Yes, by now we are no longer strangers to what the aliens look like, but when you throw them at us from every direction and pay little attention to where they come from or how they emerge, the film simply becomes an action machine.

You could argue that Covenant, therefore, is more about its characters and continuing the story that was introduced in the previous film. This it does naturally. Michael Fassbender returns as an android, and we get a new ship with a new crew made up of familiar faces like Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir and Katherine Waterston, though who they are is not as important as what they do. Most of what they do is a re-enactment of what all the past Alien crews have done: scream their heads off and run for their lives.

I think by now we have all been Aliened-out, just like we’ve been Transformered-out and Pirates of the Caribbeaned-out. These pictures have crossed over into tired repetitiveness. Covenant is as well-made as any other big budget movie out there, with lots of tantalising visuals and ideas that are never developed or pushed to fruition. What it lacks is purpose and direction. It feels strangely eventless, as if two hours go by and we’re suddenly at the climax. If this had been the first of its kind, maybe it might’ve been something to remember. Unfortunately, its kind has been done and dusted, and then dusted some more.

Alien: Covenant is available in Australian cinemas from May 11

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Colossal

A weirdly wonderful multilayered monster mash just stomped into cinemas. And it’s not Godzilla.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Gloria’s (Anne Hathaway) seemingly cushy life is unravelling at the seams. She simultaneously loses her job and is dumped by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) due to her unhinged alcoholism and general reckless disregard towards life, forcing her out of his New York apartment and back to her hometown. Here she reconnects with old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who helps her to get set up and begin rebuilding her life. Unexpectedly, news reports of a giant monster destroying Seoul suddenly surface, and Gloria eventually comes to the realisation she is connected to and in control of it, and that her pointless life may in fact have a huge effect on the world.

The lawsuits surrounding it suggested otherwise, but Colossal is wholly unique. Godzilla’s parent company’s attempts to sue for plagiarism wound up unsuccessful, and rightfully so, as writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s (Open Windows) kaiju comedy is about as far away from your typical monster mash as it gets. It’s pretty damn near unclassifiable in fact; marketed as a sort of quirky indie romantic comedy (with city-levelling creatures), it’s all of these things and none of them.

Instead, Colossal constantly subverts expectations and continually takes surprisingly dark turns, winding up a metaphor-heavy meditation on the consequences of alcoholism, violent behaviour and harbouring ugly, hate-filled feelings. There’s a colossal amount of substance to chew on here (pun intended), and a tight-knit cast of deep, complex characters who range from (and slide between) sympathetic and truly detestable. Vigalondo’s most innovative move is keeping the human drama front-and-centre; this element winds up far more chaotic and destructive. Huge spectacle is avoided unlike any other creature feature, making the stakes much more intimate yet concurrently grand in ramifications; like every approach to the film it’s unusual, but it’s massively absorbing madness.

Anne Hathaway, who, after her Oscar win became the subject of a strange amount of hate, looks set to shrug off that career slump she’s been stuck in the past few years. Gloria is deeply flawed and very much her own worst enemy, but Hathaway gives her charm and humour that makes it easy to flip instantly between laughing at her situation and pitying it. The desire to see her better herself is always there, and she’s giddily watchable as she attempts to work out why her inner demons have manifested themselves as a literal monster.

Surprisingly though, it’s Jason Sudeikis who’s given the real meaty stuff to work with. Smug jerks are his specialty, but here he’s on an intense new level that steers much of the film’s unpredictable turns and shocking revelations. It’s difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but it’s very likely the best performance he’s ever delivered.

Though it won’t break the box office like its kaiju kin, it deserves that kind of recognition; it’s enormously creative, monstrously original and colossally entertaining.

Colossal is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – Power Rangers

Looks like somebody forgot to pay the power bill.

⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Forever young. I want to be, forever young… where did it go so, so wrong?

Power Rangers was meant to be exciting. It was meant to be fun, yet gritty. Humorous, yet dark. The child within me ached for all of this and more. In the end, it didn’t come anywhere close to this, but nevertheless, I’m still hopeful that a future sequel can one day recuperate what has been lost.

For the uninitiated, Power Rangers follows a team of young superheroes who are tasked with protecting the fate of Earth against the many evil forces of the universe. The history of these rangers dates back to the dinosaur era, and we pick up the story with a new batch of heroes who are suddenly recruited in order to prevent the oncoming end of the world. And I truly do mean new: the entire main cast is made up of fresh faces against a backdrop of Hollywood A-listers in Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks. Perth’s very own Dacre Montgomery landed the lucrative role as lead red power ranger, but more on him later.

Let’s break it down.

Power Rangers follows in the footsteps of other failed reboots. It takes an original idea that worked the first time, then throws in some uninteresting characters and ridiculously gimmicky plot devices. Audiences come along to see their favourite characters kick ass in colourful spandex tights, then stay to see these heroes work together and grow together as a team. This is where Power Rangers goes so fundamentally wrong – it offers little opportunity for this team dynamic to unfold.

Amidst a storyline that follows convenience after convenience, none of the characters are as charismatic or charming as our beloved Marvel superheroes. Instead, we’re given a team of Power Rangers who are generic, unfunny, confusing and just downright annoying. Yes, this is the first time we see superheroes from the LGBTQ and autistic communities, but I just wish they were more engaging. Montgomery’s performance is probably the best out of the five (though RJ Cyler as the Blue Ranger has his moments), but this isn’t saying much. The blame inevitably lands with director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac).

Israelite is far too focused on experimenting with different Dutch angles from absurd distances to worry about a little thing called storytelling. For example, moments that were intended to be dramatic accidentally came off as comedic. I couldn’t help but laugh at Elizabeth Banks’ performance with her overacting and horrendous dialogue. Just thinking about it right now makes me crack up.

If you’re after a far better and more worthy reboot to the franchise, YouTube Joseph Khan’s film, which is infinitely more impressive and only 14 minutes long.

Power Rangers is available in Australian cinemas from March 22

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Beauty and the Beast

Bill Condon returns to blockbuster filmmaking with his take on a treasured Disney classic, pitting a gorgeous dame with a really hairy companion.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

If you’re going to remake a classic you have to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and with the best possible intentions, not because a bunch of pot-bellied studio execs have decided it’s the “in thing” to do. I blame Cinderella (2015) for this. Oh yes, that remake was a big success and I adored Lily James in the lead, but its triumph proved only one thing: that Disney has found a new creative source to plunder. Itself. Soon, a company that used to crack down on copyright infringement with the tenacity of Mufasa will have cloned every movie in its revered collection for no other reason than profit. Bravo.

This year they give us a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, one of the most loved classics to come out of the Disney Renaissance, and all I can really say about it is “Hmmm…”. No, it’s not terrible, but it’s not astounding either, and I feel it should have been. The original Beauty and the Beast was one of the first animated films to introduce digital illustrations; this new movie consists mostly of digital illustrations and boasts a Dan Stevens who falls into that all-too-familiar trap of spending the majority of the film concealed behind prosthetics and motion-capture accoutrements. Like Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, the Beast is a stunning achievement in makeup and CGI but terribly vacant as an actor’s performance.

But then this Beauty and the Beast remake isn’t about performances or actors (though Emma Watson as Belle has rarely looked more angelic); it’s about doing what’s been done before, with more sophisticated technology and bigger egos. And about trying to be progressive by (pointlessly) turning a couple of characters gay. It also relies inordinately on our nostalgia for the original animated version. All the songs we’ve come to love are here, played out in vibrant and vigorous set pieces, and indeed they are where the film truly sparkles. Once the plot settles down and dialogue begins to spar with itself, everything simply feels like a recitation of the original. Scenes of drama act as little more than rickety bridges connecting one musical number to the next. There are new songs written and sung specifically for this remake, but they feel out of place and tend to spell out characters’ emotions instead of allowing the audience to ascertain them for itself.

Am I being pedantic? Possibly. It’s hard not to be when reviewing a movie that shouldn’t have existed. It’s no secret that I’ve grown immensely sceptical about the state of Hollywood, with its well of remakes, sequels, prequels, reboots and adaptations, and to know that Disney will be falling in line by converting a great many of its masterpieces doesn’t fill me with much joy.

Don’t get me wrong – for what it is, this Beauty and the Beast just about gets the job done. It is supremely passable and had the girl sitting next to me in buckets of tears. But when an expensive remake comes out and does nothing but make us pine for the original that inspired it, you’re not starting down a new and exciting path; you’re taking a few steps back and tripping over your own feet. Cinderella and The Jungle Book (2016) were happy exceptions. This one isn’t as happy.

Beauty and the Beast is available in Australian cinemas from March 23

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Passengers

Muddled messaging and an uneven script hamper an otherwise solid sci-fi romance in Passengers.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury 

What would you do if you were stranded in space for your entire life? That’s the question posed by Passengers, an original sci-fi film directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.

The film opens aboard the Avalon, a sleek spaceship careening through the cosmos. It’s mission is to safely transport 5000 passengers to a remote colony over 120 light years away. However, two of the passengers, Jim Preston (Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Lawrence), awake from their sleep pods 90 years too early and are faced with spending the rest of their lives in solely each other’s company. Together they must find out why they woke up and save the ship from destruction.

Passengers is a strange film; it poses a lot of tough moral dilemmas, but chooses to not offer a definitive answer in fear of shackling its own broad appeal. It structures its narrative in such a way that the conventional plot twist is traded for ongoing dramatic irony. Rather than framing the premise as a thriller or a horror, Passengers is an intimate romance for the first two-thirds before transitioning into a full-blown disaster action movie in the final 30 minutes. It’s a bit of mess to be honest.

Strangely, it’s also a movie where the entire marketing campaign is framed around concealing a key plot detail. Every trailer has kept something pivotal underwraps, instead choosing to focus on the action-heavy third act. At best it’s a clever ploy; at worst it’s straight-up misleading and deceitful.

Even with a plot riddled with so many fundamental flaws, both Pratt and Lawrence shine. They share tangible chemistry that offers the occasional flash of brilliance amongst the haphazard narrative. Lawrence in particular is great, showing that outside the X-Men series, she has undeniable acting chops that really sell the more emotional beats.

It’s very difficult to talk about Passengers without revealing the big twist that effectively takes the wind out of its sails, which is a crying shame because most of the other technical aspects are stellar. Thomas Newman‘s score is superb and you can bet your ass I’m going to be listening to it on repeat. The cinematography is eye-catching; the production design is sleek and distinctive. Almost every aspect of the movie is polished and pleasing – except for the plot. With some tweaks, maybe it could have worked better – but the finished product is an odd breed that tries to be too many things and forgets the moral implications of its actions.

Passengers is available in Australian cinemas from January 1st , and if you feel like spoiling yourself to a lovely screening outdoors Roof Top Cinemas will be screening Passengers on February 5th.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One proves that the Star Wars series has considerable legs outside of the central Skywalker saga.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

After jumping 30 years into the future for The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise hops back in time for a brief standalone adventure set mere days before the 1977 original. Rogue One rests directly adjacent to A New Hope and follows a band of courageous rebels who infiltrate a high security Imperial facility to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia is in possession of during that iconic opening scene.

Of course, that means we already know how this one ends – however, Rogue One is more about the journey than the destination. It’s filling in the blanks and fleshing out the story to add depth. This is the untold prologue to George Lucas‘ original masterpiece – and thankfully, incoming director Gareth Edwards does the audacious tale justice.

Leading this daring group of misfits is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a headstrong miscreant who gets swept up in the mission by Rebel recruiter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his wisecracking robot buddy K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Jones does a fantastic job in the lead role, quickly asserting herself as a memorable and distinct addition to the Star Wars canon. Her arc throughout the film is well defined and one scene in particular sees Jones flex her Oscar-nominated acting chops.

Edwards’ direction is another positive; his sense of scale and spectacle in Rogue One is second-to-none. Best known for helming 2014’s Godzilla reboot, Edwards crafts sprawling battles that simultaneously feel vast and intimately personal. The climax of the film, which forks into several strands in typical Star Wars fashion, is paced to perfection. It’s a grounded and gritty form of well-choreographed chaos that can be described as the best set piece the series has seen since the finale of 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

That being said, Rogue One is far from perfect. The first hour is disjointed and hops around trying to introduce as many characters, locations and plot devices as possible. There aren’t enough fully fleshed scenes to soak in the characters and as a result, quite a few of Jyn’s peers come across as broadly drawn sketches rather than well-rounded characters. The most entertaining is Donnie Yen as a blind kung-fu Force monk who knocks Stormtroopers for six with a staff; the weakest is Wen Jiang as a generic mercenary who carries a big gun and occasionally says something snarky.

Ben Mendelsohn is a little underutilised and Riz Ahmed’s character is stumped with an odd character arc that is already resolved by the time the film starts. The worst addition is Forest Whitaker as guerrilla fighter Saw Gerrera – I don’t know what film set he wondered in from, but his performance sure as hell doesn’t mesh with the rest of Rogue One.

Rogue One is imperfect but a lot better than any prequel has any right to be. Edwards has knocked it out of the park in terms of crafting scale and capturing the grubby aesthetic of Lucas’ original. Stick with it through the jumbled opening act and you’ll be richly rewarded with a towering crescendo that dishes out tears and cheers in equal measure.

And yes, Darth Vader’s cameo is awesome. That’s what you’re reading this review for right?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available in Australian cinemas from December 15

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Morgan

Directed by Luke Scott, son of Ridley Scott, comes Morgan, a supposedly cerebral sci-fi thriller that seems to have left its brain at the door.

⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Morgan sees a team of scientists grapple with the moral quandaries of terminating a bioengineered child (Anya Taylor-Joy) that they’ve nurtured since birth after a routine experiment ends in violence. With corporate risk assessment consultant Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) breathing down their necks, the team have to accept that Morgan is both dangerous and unpredictable, but their emotional attachment continues to create complications.

I’m just going to put it out there – Morgan is a mess from start to finish. Well actually, that’s a lie – the final scene is a doozy. There are ideas introduced in the final scene that make you finally sit up and take notice, but everything in the 90 minutes beforehand is a sloppy, directionless mess of tangled character motivations and narrative arcs. Believe me, holding out for that sting in the tail isn’t worth the wait.

At its core, Morgan has some good stuff to work with – it’s just a shame then that director Luke Scott fails to mould them into anything worthwhile. Firstly, the script is about as riveting as a really piss-weak episode of Doctor Who from the 80s. The actions of almost every character in the film are wildly inconsistent or deeply flawed. It’s really lazy, B-movie writing.

This is an $8 million sci-fi where next to nothing happens for a good hour, and when something does happen, we’re already knee-deep in the final act. I could count on one hand the number of notable plot points and I’d still have three fingers remaining. Scott fills the bulk of the film with creaky, wooden exposition that gives us all the essential backstory, but none of the key emotional beats to make us care about anyone. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Morgan or unsettled by Lee’s uncaring ruthlessness? None of the characters are particularly likeable, which makes the tedious pacing and generic plot a real slog.

It doesn’t help that the execution isn’t anything to write home about. The continuity between scenes, and sometimes takes, is slapdash at best. In one scene, we see a character run barely 100 meters from one set to another – one minute it’s pitch dark outside, the next it’s broad daylight. Did that just happen or did someone accidentally step on the fast-forward button? While this is sci-fi and I expect some liberties to be taken with the truth, please don’t insult our intelligence like that.

A lot of really talented actors are wasted in this piece – Mara, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Cox. Even Paul freakin’ Giamatti is in this movie! Were they being blackmailed or something?

At the end of the day, Morgan doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before and bears too many similarities to Alex Garland’s far superior Ex Machina to earn a recommendation from me. In fact, just go watch Ex Machina instead.

Morgan is available in Australian cinemas from December 1st

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them expands the Harry Potter universe while supplying a steady stream of creativity, invention and unabashed charm.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

This magnificent movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is precisely what a spin-off prequel should be – an exploration of ideas that the original began, but never fully realised, and not a cheap imitation designed to weasel nostalgic memories from our heads like the wispy strands of brain matter in Albus Dumbledore’s Pensieve. From beginning to end, from left to right, up and down, this film is a wondrous experience. I feel enriched by it.

I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. It was well-made and steeped in an intricate mythology, but it got too bogged down by the threat of evil and ended up losing much of its early charm. Fantastic Beasts is the first of a planned series of five, and what it presents is nothing short of immense generosity. Where many films offer a handshake early on then sneakily recoil, Fantastic Beasts is a magical machine that keeps on giving, with quirky, buttoned-down characters, a myriad of bewitching creatures that are indeed fantastic, a powerful post-war, prohibition era New York, and not one but two carefully handled plots that piggyback important messages.

It opens up the Potter mythology, ships it across the Atlantic to Manhattan, introduces the American wing of the wizarding world (which is more fascinating than eight films of Daniel Radcliffe attempting to twitch his way to an acting career), and retains much, if not all of the magic of the Potter universe. Because the earlier pictures set up the rules and established them, Fantastic Beasts is able to hit the ground running and not worry about having to pause for spell-casting lessons. The language in this film, as outlandish as it is, seems almost second nature to us by now. It is able to do its thing, uninterrupted, while we sit back like foolish kids, wide-eyed and giddy.

The plot follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a scruffy-haired, hunched-over mumbler from the UK who is on a mission to return a fantastic beast as big as a bus to its home state of Arizona. How does he do this without alerting the muggles? Why, by transporting it in his suitcase, of course. Trouble begins when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a beguiling muggle (Dan Fogler, deliciously charming), who dreams of one day opening a bakery and inadvertently unleashes the flying, slithering, crawling, jumping menagerie of Newt’s luggage upon the sleeping streets of Manhattan.

Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who helmed half the Potter series, and is written by J.K. Rowling. Together the two have formed a creation that is distinct enough from the Potter films that we are not constantly thinking of them, but slips in little cosy reminders of this shared universe.

I was afraid, being the first chapter of five, that for all its wonder the film would feel incomplete; that it would behave like a teaser for what’s to come. But in its generosity it gives us a beginning, middle and end. I cannot predict where Rowling will take these characters or how she will further involve her world of magic, and at this point I don’t really want to. I’m just grateful to be along for the ride, because what a ride it is.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is available in Australian cinemas from November 17

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Arrival

Denis Villeneuve prods at the mysteries of the far reaches of space by grounding his alien movie firmly in Montana: the land of open prairies and nosey militants.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

For someone who is convinced we’re not alone in the universe, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is about as close as I will get to first contact with an alien race. Brooding and utterly tense, it plays on our collective history of aliens in books, TV shows and movies. It plants a seed of apprehension in our minds before reassuring us that all is okay – not all foreigners come to Earth and immediately want to incinerate famous landmarks. Some of them might just want to talk.

And how do they talk? That’s the magic of Arrival, which develops a written alien language that resembles coffee stains, and contains – we are told – complete sentences in perfect rings of squid ink. It’s the equivalent of us instantly writing a sentence with both hands, from the outside in. We’d have to know precisely what we’re going to say before we even think it. These aliens not only think fast, but have completely revolutionised the laws of space, time, and the physical world.

I say all this not to sound drab, but to highlight just how fascinating this alien species is, and how convincingly Villeneuve’s CGI team assembles them out of pixels. The creatures look like massive skeletal hands that reach down from smoky heights, and their craft – of which there are twelve, scattered across the globe at random – looks like a massive granite surfboard that moves without any visible source of propulsion.

But then the awe and majesty of these larger-than-life creatures is expunged with a melancholy and often confusing human angle that involves time travel and loss, effectively sidelining the aliens from their own movie. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguistic professor who once helped the army translate Farsi so well she has become their prime candidate to meet with the aliens and decipher their cryptic coffee messages. Her partner in crime is a dorky-looking Jeremy Renner, a physicist of some kind who later breaks the code miraculously while Louise suffers a mental breakdown.

And then there are the biggest players in alien movies: the United States Army, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Always prepared, always prejudiced, always ready to shoot first and never ask questions. Arrival’s greatest achievement is holding off on the automatic rifle fire till about three-quarters of the way through the film. In a lesser movie, bullets would’ve been flying over the opening credits. We all fear what we don’t understand. Well, the US army appears to understand very little, indeed.

Look, Arrival is masterfully put together and Villeneuve once again makes a movie that doesn’t treat its audience like a bunch of buffoons, but just once I would’ve liked to sit through an alien mystery without having to worry about love affairs and meddling CIA agents and uncooperative Chinese generals. Arrival grips you in the beginning and well through its middle chunk, but loses the courage to see its brilliant premise to the end. It relies unfavourably on human beings behaving like all human beings do when faced with interplanetary crisis, by responding first with paranoia and then with all-out aggression.

Arrival is available in Australian cinemas from November 10

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films